My feelings, for their part, go on strike against me all the time, showing up with picket signs that scream truths I’d rather not hear, all while demanding that I renegotiate terms.
—Brittney Cooper (Eloquent Rage, 204)
What might one want when reading a personal narrative, a memoir, a story with multiple timelines embedded — the author’s, her family’s, the nation’s — with attention as sharply focused on ideas as on the circumstances of our social moment? In Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage, ideas and circumstances are so intertwined that political consciousness becomes a marker for both rage and generosity. In many ways I found myself rereading my own life (although I’m thirty years Cooper’s senior) as a parallel examination, a hook for my and others’ attention.
And since this text is written by one of the cofounders of the Crunk Feminist Collective (a well-regarded and highly successful blog founded by a group of feminist-of-color scholar-activists), what is the work of a public intellectual? Some part of that work surely is to provide a ground for conversations that are larger than ourselves — even as those conversations are resonant with where we are, where we have been, or where we might be when we’ve survived the lacerations produced by living with racism, sexism, homophobia, and class deprivations, in short, recognizing our limits and testing our strengths given those realities. Eloquent Rage performs vulnerability as part of a willingness to entrust the larger public with what is often held to be private.
The text is a narrative of Cooper’s coming to consciousness, not a linear progression but a retracing through memories, through reconstructions of everyday encounters, through events of social compliance and noncompliance. It’s an account of the generosity of loving, of her encounters with her own moments of empathy, of her management of disappointments, and of moments of her direct address to contemporary ugliness, articulated both through childhood encounters and through a rich enmeshment in the history of our present.
Representation — re-presentation of the remembered self as well as the currently engaged self — is no easy task, and Cooper’s narrative is not a general telling of what a Black woman must be. It is, instead, a survey of her recollected and recollecting existence, one that dares to proffer lessons for those of us who share her experience of US white supremacy and patriarchy.
Cooper walks us through a warning — “owning anger is a dangerous thing” (2) — and I’m reminded both of the costs of swallowing rage and the complexity of aiming that rage. “Focused with precision,” Audre Lorde wrote and Cooper quotes, “[rage] can become a powerful source of energy serving progress” (5). Here I find myself recalling the pleasure of venting sessions with close friends and colleagues that began with “I’m so pissed. . . .” I’m realizing that a deep exhalation was required, as though anger were a contraband that I could only exchange in secrecy. Cooper’s narrative invites us to rethink the possibility of that contraband as a warm-up to rage precision.
A forceful reminder — “When I talk about owning eloquent rage as your superpower it comes with the clear caveat that not everyone is worth your time or your rage” (35) — prompted me to remember the usefulness of channeling rage into something more, a messier, more dangerous form of revolution than “productive” ends such as teaching, writing, political activism, not killing one of my siblings.
And while the reminder of the need for rage precision is both accurate and useful, it is presaged by Cooper’s description of her chattering twelve-year-old self, who caused potential Black friends to abandon her at the zoo, a self lacking in the cool that would allow her to make the social connections she came to realize were necessary because “Black girls had to stick together” (17). If seeing the need for rage is the result of multiple scenes of instruction, then learning through hurt that Black girls need each other is a reminder that rage itself is a hardening of responses to hurt, and that hurt has a long genealogy in encounters with racism. “So much of what it meant to be a Black girl among white girls was to be spectator and coconspirator in their construction of me” (50), Cooper writes. This, this is the kind of thing that I had forgotten, possibly because of its painfulness. Eloquent Rage brought it back to my consciousness with the old force blunted enough that I could gain some self-knowledge as I watched Cooper dragging herself across the ragged edges of her memory having survived the original lacerations.
The grace of Cooper’s self-exposure and that self’s learning, without falling into the US myth of the rugged individual, is apparent when she writes: “If every woman and girl learned to love herself fiercely, the patriarchy would still be intact” (91). The notion of love as necessary but insufficient for patriarchy-busting is presaged by an earlier warning of the need for a larger social love: “If Black women don’t figure out how to love other Black women . . . it will be the death of us” (23). This may sound like hyperbole, but think about the basic ills and horrors of everyday life for many Black women — bearing children, working, educating themselves, finding romantic and sexual partners — because an individual Black woman can’t be everything she needs in the face of all that history.
I found myself thinking about the complexities of Black women loving Black women as Cooper takes us through her response to Beyoncé: for example, her generous reading of Beyoncé’s popularity and her defense of Beyoncé as a feminist. Walking the reader through these pop-culture and critical discussions is a performance of intellectual generosity with regard to Beyoncé and to her interlocutors. Important as it is for those of us who work in cultural studies to engage the larger public discourse (especially in social media), I found myself smiling when I recalled my belated attention to Beyoncé. I connected with a junior colleague over our shared bemusement at having learned to pay attention by listening to the humorous “Drunk in Love,” attention that primed us to be ready for “ Lemonade,” ready to be part of discussions with students, certainly, but even more importantly ready to see and respond to each other more directly: Black girls sticking together, Black women figuring out how to love other Black women, Black women learning to trust themselves because “we need each other to survive” (37)
As part of the necessary learning both for Cooper and for her reader, her mixed feelings about her father mark occasions when Cooper’s lacerations are apparent, but so too is the bravery of her younger self, a bravery built on a child’s emotional solidarity with her mother. Her ability to respond to his query “Do you love me?” with “No, because you hurt Mama” (78) was breathtaking when I remembered my own childhood reticence with a father I feared. That bravery is joined by a later moment when Cooper’s hard-won recognition is recounted with throat-closing clarity and pain: “My father … showed far more empathy for the man who shot him than he ever showed for the woman he claimed to love the most” (94).
The text’s clarity extends to its fascinating takedown of respectability politics, from Cooper’s account of hair aesthetic enforcements, to Michelle Obama’s hyperscrutinized time as first lady, to the violent assault of a Black high school girl by a white resource officer (147). Yet some part of Cooper’s complicated recitation of rage and Black-girl love rests in the contradictions apparent therein: the poignancy of “Are Black girls ever worth fighting for?” is juxtaposed with “I have learned to defend myself because I’ve never been able to rely on a man to do it for me” (83).
I’ve had way too much experience, too many times when I trained myself not to want what I could not have, such that I felt a strange lightening of that self-discipline when seeing the contradictions exposed and articulated by Cooper’s narrative. I can recognize a work, a memoir, a self-encounter still in progress. And what I’m left with, as I think about the narrative at its end, is a sense of its honesty, its willingness to undergo self-scrutiny in the eye of the public, its demanding that the author “renegotiate terms” (204) — a response that contends with the recurring fear, especially in the fierce conditions of life for Black women in this now, that no one will love us if they see the all that we are.
Wahneema Lubiano is an Associate Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University. This essay was originally published by Signs, as part of a Short Takes forum on Eloquent Rage. The forum, which also includes an essay by Saida Grundy, is available on the Signs website